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A Voice in the Wilderness
Life through wisdom


The moderatorial sermon preached at the annual Church of Scotland service in the Crypt, The Palace of Westminster, 1st December 1987.

For those findeth wisdom findeth life, and shall obtain favour of the Lord. But he that sinneth against me wrongeth his own soul: all they that hate me love death. Proverbs 8. v. 35-36

Since the time, at least, of the government of the Greek city states, it has been recognised that the wisest of any community avoid participation in the direction of political affairs. Plato declared that the wisest should be compelled to take up this essential function but even the wisest conscript would inevitably lack the necessary will energy for the requisite persistence which is an indispensable characteristic of those in whose hands He the well-being of the people.

Thus, it has to be accepted that the one who enters into the sphere of statesmanship is neither the wisest nor the wisest fool in Christendom. Having said this, however, it has never been the expectation of any nation to have its parliament peopled with those merely representing the highest common factor or the lower common denominator of the nation as far as such members' personal attributes are concerned.

Deep within the heart of each Scot, I cannot speak for any other, there is a longing for each of you to appropriate to yourselves wisdom. This wisdom will not only inspire you with a renewed vision and widened horizons but it will discover a creative response in our people for the renaissance of the Scottish nation.

Yet, as the Bible reminds us, wisdom is not a characteristic which can be read up, or even taught or learned - although the wiser of us are in despair at the decline in the status of philosophy which is being further undermined by the economic handcuffing of the humanities in the universities.

No. Wisdom is not intellectual achievement. It has to be seen as a self-disclosure by God of his transcendent purposes for his whole creation. We recognise that we are neither polymaths, omnicompetents, nor even well-informed specialists. Rather, we are those who seek coordinated concepts as a guide to the multifarious situations which can either be problems because of our ignorance, or opportunities if give the wisdom, raising us above uncritically received dogma, existential naive solution, pompous pratings and foppish insensitivity. As we grow in wisdom, we are aware that the emerging purposes of God cannot be measured merely within a humanly predetermined time scale, nor is such wisdom necessarily immediately recognised by the majority who may even be slowly strangling the life out of themselves as they are dragged down bound to self-made, slow destruction.

Wisdom is therefore a gift of God to the mind and to the heart which gathers to itself all those who can transcend the self-centred, the outmoded, the doctrinaire and the unthinking.

Cruise O'Brien, in his contribution to the perceptive volume, The Future of Modern Humanities, helps us in this matter with his soliloquy on Imagination and Polities'. This paper, although written twenty years ago, is a needful message for us. It is not without interest that Professor John Mclntyre, Dean of the Order of the Thistle, has made an important contribution to imagination and theology very recently.

Imaginativeness, or as the Germans put it, Fantasie, is the outworking of one of the great impetuses of wisdom on humanity. As the mind, with complete openness, apprehends the possibilities, hopes and desires within any human situation, it is, thereafter, intuitively directed to creative thoughtful action by wise inspiration. If such an activity is recognised as wise within a wide circle, there is not only support and participation, but a massive contribution of communal wisdom is forthcoming which assures long-term well-being.

God is always challenging us to discover imaginativeness which can only be inspired by him when we self-transcend and give attention to all sources of wisdom. "Doth not wisdom cry? and understanding put forth her voice? She stands at the top of high places, by the way in the places of the paths. She crieth at the gates, at the entry of the city, at the coming in at the doors. Unto you, O men, I call; and my voice is to the sons of men".

One of the most insidiously destructive, conditioned reflexes of contemporary society is the view that all in authority are incompetent fools, and politicians are high in such a list of negation. There are, of course, reasons for this 'Decline of Individual Authority' as described by John Carroll, in Puritanism, Paranoid, Remissive: A Sociology of Modern Culture, but his diagnosis does not go to the heart of the problem.

Those of us who have the rare privilege of coming from a Celtic, cultural background know the high place which was given to the wise, irrespective of their place in a township. This tradition is still recognisable in the continuation of 'the men' in the life of the church in the Outer Isles. The acknowledgement of wisdom has therefore not to be sought only in the ruling or higher echelons of society but rather to be observed as a grace gift distributed to men and women throughout the community, which if neglected and unharnessed will leave the nation impoverished.

This innate reservoir of national wisdom only issues forth when the varied social groupings are modest and sensitive enough to pay attention to those who have a specific gift of enlightenment. This is undoubtedly greatly needed within political life at the present time. It is no easy task. Much patience is required. The wise often remain silent amid so many current raucous declamations. Their voices are avoided by the media which tends to wallow in the hackneyed cliche and the slick, superficial slogan. Patient sensitivity in discerning one's own wisdom and that of the other is the foundation of social stability and communal contentment. History has taught us powerfully and terribly of the deadly harvest of the Fuhrer Prinzip.

It must also be borne in mind that the wise in our small nation of five million do not see room for a "them and us" mentality. Wisdom is not to be revealed in national schizophrenia. Wisdom is a health-bringing gift which points us all beyond our small individualistic or partisan minority group expectations, which are manifest in fragmentation and divisiveness to an all-embracing unity which alone can be the source of national renewal. This is, however, never totally within our grasp although we need not cease from having great expectations.

Thus, ultimately, wisdom is always apprehended by imperfect human beings and such an apprehension is inevitably also restricted by our own world of experience and language. It is therefore never a perfect wisdom nor an infallible pronouncement. Human words can only express that which is within the givenness of our environment. Wisdom, the supernatural gift, is impaired and restricted by our very humanity.

Having said this, we have nevertheless to be ever on our guard in the way in which we express our glimpses of wisdom. The reception of true wisdom brings with it a humble awareness of its fragility. We know that the nation is weary of inane incantations, repetitive rhetoric, and empty ideological or outward dogmatic vocabulary. Most will not listen. The judgement is not to be given against such citizens when almost all sense has been drowned by the overwhelming waves of contemporary verbal inflation.

This indeed calls for imagination, the closest handmaid of wisdom. All, who have known wisdom's inspiration, experience too the agony of finding the appropriate word, the decisive moment and the attentive ear. This is all the more harrowing when that God-given insight can only relate to some split second when we are at the turning tide of some small or great happening into which we have been drawn. The word so often fails, the moment passes, or the ear is deaf. Our taper light of wisdom is snuffed out. The imaginativeness which we lacked was the source of our sorrow. We realise on reflection that we did not sacrifice some activity for the silence and the thoughtfulness into which would have blossomed the needful imagination. Dreams can become expectations and expectations reality if we can be but still.

The quandary common to theologians and politicians is the finding of quietness to allow the wisdom of God to unfold. Much of our energies are dissipated by the defence of half-truths and the uncritical acceptance of much which has influenced us: particularly those which affect us quite unconsciously. This is especially tragic, for it is from the deep depths of our minds that so often wisdom can arise, if not thrust down by the unmanifested nonsense already residing there.

We have to begin again to realise that we are all on the search for the hidden wisdom of God which he providentially reveals in mentally appropriate measure to the human spirit. If we are aware of this, we cease to assume that the other, who thinks in different ways from ourselves, is capable of participating with us in the ever continuous search for wisdom.

Every human institution, and above all any parliament, has, as its greatest goal, such an achievement: to bring forth, from the diversity of ordinary human beliefs and ideals, a generally accepted wisdom which will inspire, encourage and guide the nation to wholeness and wholesomeness. If such a concept does not provide the inner mental and spiritual propulsion to motivate and direct those who seek to lead the nation, then nothing can be done to change much that appears as prosaic politics today.

The growth of social inertia among us has been one of the direct results of what so many see as incredible politics lacking any real inspiration. If this inner immigration continues, the warnings of Toynbee's analysis of the causes of a civilisation's decline will be re-enacted before our very eyes. Wisdom can provide the re-energizing which our society requires immediately and, while it is not given in large measure to many, those who are seen to have this enriching gift - which appears in very different, and often unexpected places - must be encouraged to pursue their vision.

As we have heard from Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians, 'Speak every man truth with his neighbour for we are members one of another'. You are indeed so named. No untruth can be the vehicle of wisdom, it is in fact immediately destroyed in the presence of deceit. There can be no credibility gap among you, or your wisdom, which we all need, will not be yours to impart.

We all look for a new atmosphere in political life; a new sense of vocation which can arise only when you seek after wisdom and acknowledge it wherever it appears and however it is conveyed.

Remember the words of Jesus, 'For by thy words shall thou be justified and by thy words shalt thou be condemned'. Jesus is not talking here of the irrelevant banalities which, although of frequent appearance, neither convince nor influence anyone and are soon forgotten. It is the powerful insight conveyed with wisdom, conviction, clarity and integrity: the wise word dovetailed into history which can never be separated from the achievement. In spite of numerous failures of our own making, or lasting disappointments caused even by our friends, many of us can rejoice that wisdom has guided us and the words which were spoken have been justified and it will always be a moment for remembrance. There are, however, the other words of false promise, of reckless rhetoric, of unfounding denigration, and of unworthy imputation which have left a dark stain on the minds and hearts of those who were awaiting wisdom. These words we may strive to forget but we are indeed by them for decades condemned. Such words are not forgotten. Wisdom demands that we ask for forgiveness before forgetfulness.

Thus Proverbs reminds us, "Blessed is the man that heareth wisdom, watching daily at my gates, waiting at the posts of my doors. For whoso findeth me findeth life, and shall obtain favour of the Lord. But he that sinneth against me wrongeth his own soul: all they that hate me love death".

To listen, to watch, to wait for wisdom, this is the blessed state to which to aspire. True living is only possible when wisdom can be identified and apprehended. The favoured ones of God are therefore capable of discerning true living and have the capacity to portray it in action.

The final warning of these proverbial words indicates that the ignoring or rejecting of wisdom does not merely produce irrationality but complete destruction. Remember that the opposition of a unity of coherent understanding is disintegratingness - the nihil as Karl Barth describes it. Thus the chaos which always lies latent in society does not come about by its own initiative for chaos by its very nature is incapable of any rational concerted action. Every chaos in society appears in the absence of wisdom.

Your supreme duty to yourselves and to others is therefore a serious and high vocation to seek, above all, that God-given wisdom so that you may creatively and imaginatively govern, remembering the ever present passive chaos which has the capacity to destroy without doing anything.


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